What is the purpose of homework?
What is the purpose of homework? Why do so many kids suffer from homework anxiety? Why do we teachers assign so much homework?
Last year, one of my favorite students' father wrote all the teachers a note through our online communication system. The note went something like this (all in capital letters):
"Why do you teachers assign so much homework? There is no need for my daughter to do 5h of homework every night. She stays up every night until very late and then can't concentrate in school. I can't stand seeing her with bags under her eyes. Stop assigning useless homework!"
I had to laugh. I really don't assign a lot of homework, and therefore I just ignored the note and laughed some more. When the student came in to school the next day, she appologized to me for her father's note, as weh because she doesn't get much homework from my class. I guess I really don't assign a lot of homework.
Let me prefice this discussion with a bit of where I'm coming from. I am a high school math and science teacher. I do assign homework for practice, but not only.
When I went to school (high school and university - here homework wasn't checked on a regular basis like in junior high and elementary), I would do the minimum amount of homework necessary. Yet, somehow I always got awesome grades and the teachers loved me. I really streamlined the homework and focused on what was important the given night. I did pull a few all-nighters, and crammed right before the exam a lot. When I look back at my youthful days, I think how silly I was, how wasteful I was. I took education for granted, and didn't learn to my full potential. But possibly, doing everything assigned to me was just not possible! With the bombardment of assignments from every class, maybe it just wasn't possible to do ALL the homework!? Maybe my method of picking and choosing was the only way to go - after all I was an A student!
So I ask again - why do we bother assigning homework?
Here are a few reasons I assign homework:
1. To let students practice what they learned. This is very important when teaching a subject to a room full of students who are trying to finish their business or IT security degree who are required to take math, physics or chemistry. There are concepts that can be learned, but skills need to be practiced to become an expert. Ideally, this practice could be done at school, in the class, so that students could have the opportunity to ask me questions if they get stumped. However, the reality is that there is never enough time for practice in the classroom. Very often, I feel as if I'm running out of time, that I won't cover all the material unless I hurry up. In fact, a lot of the time, the curricula are so packed, so crammed, that there is no time for practice in the classroom, and homework must be assigned. However, I find that some teachers over-practice concepts, and students start disliking the discipline, just because of the monotony of the exercises. Too much practice is also no good! There needs to be a balance.
2. To let students investigate on their own, learn how to find answers to questions, show that the teacher does not have an answer to everything. Many times, I get students to do research as homework. I ask them a question, a topic, and they have to come back with an answer. This usually comes out in discussion. For instance, if as a class we are having a discussion on a subject a little bit off topic, yet still relevant and interesting, and a student asks 'How does that work?". Instead of rejecting their question, or answering it on the spot, I tend to go to the "Find out yourself and share with us tomorrow" strategy. This works really well, because the student actually asked the question, and therefore might be actually interested in finding out.
Another time I assign research as homework is when the topic of study has a lot of info/knowledge, if the subject is very detailed, but not all the information is necessarily required to be regurgitated. This is the perfect time to get students working on their own, using their research skills to understand a topic up close. On top of that, the "sharing with the rest of the class" part has great benefits and excellent learning opportunities in itself.
Again, just like with the "practice-type" homework, "research-type" homework could be done in class time, but if class-time is limited, homework is the only option.
3. To finish mundane things that class time didn't permit. I use this type of homework especially for writing up labs. I let the students do the lab in class, take down the observations, think about it, discuss the results. However the write-up of the lab is always exclusively done at home. Again this is more of a left-over from class, but I cannot find a reason for spending class time for such a mundane thing. I guess I find class-time too precious. But really, isn't time at home also supposed to be precious?
4. To let students build, work as a team, on their own time, with their own schedule. I like to assign projects as homework. This allows students to work on their own time, to plan out how much effor they need to put in. A lot of the time, projects are done in groups, and just because of that, there is a need to learn cooperation. Because of these projects, many times strong friendships are built. (Some of my best friends today I met when I had to choose a group for a group project at school.) The students have to plan to meet outside of class, in their own homes. They have to learn to work together, to split up a job into individual parts. All of these skills are essential in real life and I think this type of homework is the best type of homework. It cannot be done at school, because if I gave solely class-time to work on a project, this would take away from the "self-discipline" of making individualized sub-deadlines and the "self-pacing" of working on a project together with a group. Inevidibly, some groups would be done sooner than others, and then I would have to either waste time for some groups or cut the precious time for others. Working on a group project is not the left-overs from a class - it is the ultimate type of homework.
Recently I started to run math and science workshops. I see the kids once a week for an hour or two. Each session is paid for. In this case, I cannot see myself letting the kids just go onto the computer and do research for me - for that precious hour. When the students are with me, they want to learn, actively, but learn! They don't want to practice, they don't want to research on their own. They have me, they want to take advantage of me. But is school like these workshops? Am I that precious at school? Or is it that the students see me so much, that they need a break once in a while to do the practice, do the mundane, have a research class?
Initially I thought as a teacher I had to be always "on", presenting a new topic, doing some sort of fun activity, doing a lab. Nowadays, I think that some classes are supposed to be more of the "homework" types of classes. In that way I can somewhat relax, but most importantly I can take the burden off of the students - I let them do the practice in class, let them have their evening to themselves, the precious time at home can be spent on what they want, and not the left-overs from my classroom.
It's just too bad that I can't afford to give no homework at all!